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Home International Environmental Law Archive for category "Climate Change"

A New Classic in Climate Change Litigation: The Dutch Supreme Court Decision in the Urgenda Case

Published on January 6, 2020        Author:  and

 

 

The judgment of the Dutch Supreme Court in State of the Netherlands v Urgenda is a landmark for future climate change litigation. On the 20th of December 2019, the Supreme Court held that on the basis of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) the Netherlands has a positive obligation to take measures for the prevention of climate change and that it has to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with at least 25% by the end of 2020, compared to 1990 levels. An unofficial translation of the full judgement will be published on the website of the Dutch judiciary after the 13th of January 2020.

The judgment is significant as it demonstrates how a court can determine responsibilities of an individual state, notwithstanding the fact that climate change is caused by a multiplicity of other actors who share responsibility for its harmful effects. Around the world, a flood of lawsuits has been initiated to establish legal responsibility for actors contributing to climate change. The Urgenda judgment, that has been heralded as the ‘strongest’ of all, makes clear that the fact the a state is only a minor contributor compared to many other actors, does not preclude its individual responsibility. The judgment contains important pointers that plaintiffs and courts can rely on in similar cases.

In this blogpost we briefly recap the procedure leading to the Supreme Court judgment and discuss three conclusions reached by the Supreme Court that will be of wider interest:

1) the ECHR imposed a positive obligation to take appropriate measures to prevent to climate change;

2) these measures should at least ensure that the Netherlands realizes a reduction of GHG emissions by 25%, compared to 1990, by the end of 2020; and

3) even though the Netherlands was only a minor contributor to climate change, it had an independent obligation to reduce emissions.

Recap of the proceedings

Central to the proceedings was the reduction target for developed nations of 25%-40% by 2020, compared to 1990 levels, originally identified as one scenario in the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The Netherlands had embraced this target in 2007, stating that it aimed to reduce Dutch emissions with 30% by 2020. Yet in 2011, the government indicated that it would not meet the target, instead aiming for 14-17% reduction.

In 2013, a Dutch NGO with a mission to contribute to sustainability and innovation called Urgenda (‘urgent agenda)’, initiated a lawsuit against the Dutch State with the aim to order the State to reduce Dutch GHG emissions by 40% at the end of the year 2020, or at least by a minimum of 25% in comparison the year 1990.

In the 2015 judgment of the Hague District Court, Urgenda prevailed. The District Court ordered the State to ‘limit the joint volume of Dutch annual greenhouse gas emissions, or have them limited, such that this volume will have been reduced by at least 25% at the end of 2020 compared to the level of the year 1990′. The District Court based this order on the doctrine of hazardous negligence, which is read into the provision on tort in the Dutch Civil Code: behaviour is inter alia considered tortious if it unnecessarily creates danger and thus is contrary to what ‘according to unwritten law is deemed fit in societal interrelations’ (Article 6:162). Contrary to Urgenda’s claim, the District Court did not ground its conclusion directly on human rights law, as it held that Urgenda could not invoke human rights provisions stemming from the ECHR (nor could it invoke the United Nations Convention against Climate Change (UNFCCC)). Read the rest of this entry…

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COP25 Negotiations Fail: Can Climate Change Litigation, Adjudication, and/or Arbitration Compel States to Act Faster to Implement Climate Obligations?

Published on December 19, 2019        Author: 

The failure of the 25th negotiating year by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (COP25) held this month in Madrid to achieve the necessary global decisions to implement Article 6 of the Paris Agreement on the creation of an international carbon trading system points to some glaring structural – and not just political – deficits in the international system.  While accusations have been heaped on all sides against countries such as Brazil, India, and China (who held out for carryovers of around 4 billion of unsold certified emission reductions or CERS, which represent existing carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism), Australia (who reportedly argued that carryover of its CERS would show it meets its carbon targets), and the United States (who reportedly argued for language under Article 8 of the Paris Agreement that would insulate the United States from any obligation to compensate for any climate -related loss and damage), no indications have been given on how to break the negotiations impasse well before the COP26 next year in Glasgow.  Only the European Union thus far has put forward bold policies and taken decisions to achieve climate-neutrality for its territory by 2050. This dismal outcome does lead me to doubt what the eminent environmental law scholar Professor Dan Bodansky strenuously argued back in 2016:

“From start to finish, the question of legal form or character was central to the Paris negotiations. The Paris Agreement is a treaty within the definition of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, but not every provision of the agreement creates a legal obligation. It contains a mix of mandatory and non-mandatory provisions relating to parties’ mitigation contributions, as well as to the other elements of the Durban Platform, including adaptation and finance. One cannot definitively say how much the legally binding character of the Paris Agreement matters. Making the agreement legally binding may provide a greater signal of commitment and greater assurance of com- pliance. But transparency, accountability and precision can also make a significant difference, and legal bindingness can be a double-edged sword if it leads States not to participate or to make less ambitious commitments. Thus, the issue of legal character, though important, is only one factor in assessing the significance of the Paris outcome.” (Italics added.)

Notwithstanding the tremendous global political mobilization galvanized by Greta Thunberg alongside the rise of climate change activism around the world, and the optimism that some in the environmental law community seems to place on the greater impact of transparency in the Paris Agreement to encourage State compliance (one I still shared back in 2015), this year-end 2019 I have less confidence in voluntary cooperative strategies alone. A November 2019 report led by the former Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed that most countries will not make their Paris Agreement targets:

“To achieve the Paris Agreement’s most ambitious goal of keeping global warming below 1.5 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels requires reducing global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 50 percent by 2030, and some of these pledges are unlikely to be achieved.

Of the 184 climate pledges, 36 were deemed sufficient (20 percent), 12 partially sufficient (6 percent), 8 partially insufficient (4 percent), and 128 insufficient (70 percent).

Because the climate pledges are voluntary, technicalities, loopholes, and conditions continue to postpone decisive global action to reduce emissions and address climate change.” (Emphasis and italics added.)

Under this reality, shouldn’t the ‘invisible college of international lawyers’ devote more efforts today towards reviving the blunt edge of climate change-based national, regional, or international litigation, adjudication, and arbitration towards reaching sufficiency of climate pledges for 70% of the world, and actual monitoring and enforcement of all climate pledges?  While some might see the proliferation of coercive legal enforcement as perhaps anathema to the deliberate design of the Paris Agreement, the last few years have witnessed a sharp rise in climate change-based domestic litigation; climate change-based petitions at human rights treaty bodies; a recent 2019 Philippine Constitutional Commission on Human Rights report concluding that the Carbon Majors (47 of the world’s biggest fossil fuel firms) could be held legally liable for violating human rights; and various opinions (see here, here, here, here, here, here, among many others) on how international arbitration could be used for climate change-based or climate change-related disputes, especially on challenging the adequacy or appropriateness of the multiple individual mitigation and adaptation policies and strategies of States and businesses and the impacts of those policies and strategies on populations.  There is clearly no shortage of international legal remedies being exhausted for climate change-related disputes, except for the most important one: getting States to act with despatch, negotiate in good faith, and to fulfill Paris Agreement targets sufficiently.  The reason often advanced is that this part of the Paris Agreement is not legally binding and thus cannot be subject of any legal enforcement anywhere.  But is it? While one can plausibly argue that the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) set by States pursuant to the Paris Agreement are not hard legal commitments (as rightly shown by Jorge Vinuales in this blog here, here, and here), as others have argued (here, here, and here) various other procedural obligations as to transparency, reporting, and accountability are legally binding. However, the absence of explicit legal sanction or punitive consequences in the text of the Paris Agreement treaty arguably operates to reinforce, embolden, and empower ‘holdouts’ in the COP negotiations who can take extreme positions to delay reaching decisions to implement the Paris Agreement.

At the very least, I would argue that, even within the hard and soft letter of the Paris Agreement, is interwoven an independent (customary) international legal obligation to negotiate in good faith that could be the substantive basis for incurring international or State responsibility. This obligation does NOT pertain to the specific realization of climate targets, but rather, refers to the good faith obligation of States to ensure that negotiations to implement the Paris Agreement remain meaningful.  This would squarely question whether the holdout positions on maintaining carryover credits under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism would still keep negotiations meaningful to realize the international carbon trading system under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement.  In this post, I evaluate the Paris Agreement text (especially Article 6) alongside the objects and purposes of the Agreement and various embedded obligations within the Agreement, against the International Court of Justice’s recent test for determining the existence of an international legal obligation to negotiate as articulated in its 2018 Judgment in Obligation to Negotiate Access to the Pacific Ocean (Bolivia v. Chile):

“…for there to be an obligation to negotiate on the basis of an agreement, the terms used by the parties, the subject-matter and the conditions of the negotiations must demonstrate an intention of the parties to be legally bound. This intention, in the absence of express terms indicating the existence of a legal commitment, may be established on the basis of an objective examination of all the evidence.” (2018 Judgment, para. 91. Italics added.)

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Renewable energy incentives: reconciling investment, EU State aid and climate change law

Published on December 18, 2019        Author: 

 

Domestic incentives for renewable energy production

To combat climate change, several States have created so-called ‘renewable energy incentivization schemes’ because they feared that private investors may otherwise not be willing to invest in this industry. Compared to other sectors, renewable energy investment usually requires significant upfront capital investment, while returns may be unsure and take a longer period to materialise.

Renewable energy incentivization schemes typically provide for a secure power price, buy-out options, government-supported loans, etc. By offering feed-in tariffs, for example, the host State commits to buying the generated green power for a certain period of time (25 years or even longer) at a fixed rate, regardless of the real market price.

Some States seem to have been unprepared for the success of these incentivisation schemes and have difficulties in fulfilling the financial aspects of their own schemes. Combined with the budgetary problems caused by the financial crisis and/or a reprimand from the European Commission, which was of the opinion that some of these stimuli formed prohibited subsidies (State aid) under EU law, States have amended or terminated their programmes. Some have even sought to reclaim the sums already transferred to investors. Read the rest of this entry…

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Canute’s Kingdoms: Can small island states legislate against their own disappearance?

Published on February 20, 2019        Author: 

It was recently drawn to my attention that Tuvalu and Kiribati have in recent years passed legislation, following a relatively common scheme, that removes reference to the low tide line as the baseline for measuring maritime zones and replaces it with a system of fixed geographic coordinates. (The Marshall Islands has taken a somewhat similar approach.) On its face, this may constitute a claim that their maritime baselines are permanently fixed. That is, they will not retreat or be redrawn with rising sea levels.

This might seem a small matter in the range of legal issues implicated by climate change – it is not.

As every public international lawyer probably recalls, at least after the South China Sea arbitration, an island (within the meaning of article 121 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) generates a full suite of maritime zones but must be more than a mere rock incapable of sustaining human habitation or a maritime feature which is only above water at low tide. Imagine your national territory is composed of a series of islands, some of them quite small but generating extensive maritime zones. Long before you risk becoming completely “de-territorialised” by rising sea levels you might lose much of your national livelihood if islands previously generating exclusive economic zones become mere low tide elevations.

So the question becomes, can a state freeze the baselines from which its maritime zones are projected? Read the rest of this entry…

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COP 24 and Climate Finance: A Stepping Stone or a Blurred Line?

Published on January 23, 2019        Author: 

In December 2018, the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP 24) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), took place in Katowice, Poland. The main objective of those negotiations was to finalize the so called ‘Paris Rulebook’ [the Paris Agreement Work Programme (PAWP)], which would constitute a set of rules to implement and operationalize the Paris Agreement. The issues at stakes varied from mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage, to more technical issues, such as transparency, climate finance and carbon market mechanisms under the Paris Agreement.

This post will focus on the progress made on the issue of climate finance based on an analysis of the COP 24 decision on the relevant issues. I begin by reiterating the importance of the findings presented by the latest reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Standing Committee on Climate Finance (SCF) under the UNFCCC. The SCF report on the biennial climate finance assessment highlighted the current methodological challenges concerning the reporting and verification of public and private climate finance, referring to the existence of uncertainties and gaps regarding the collection of climate finance data. Some of the SCF recommendations to the COP include i) enhancing the transparency, consistency and comparability of data on climate finance, ii) encouraging Parties providing climate finance to enhance their reporting of climate finance provided to developing country Parties and iii) encouraging developing country Parties that provide support to report information on climate finance provided to other developing country Parties.

One of the most ambiguous, but at the same time significant issues of the COP 24, was that of accounting and reporting on climate finance. The Paris Agreement contains two main provisions on financial flows, namely: article 2.1(c) providing for a general framework of making financial flows climate resilient; as article 9, which, apart from the general climate finance obligation, also provides for the ex-post and ex-ante finance transparency. The operationalization of the latter has been one of the main tasks of COP 24. The formal COP 24 agenda provided for the negotiation of the following matters relating to climate finance:

  1. long-term climate finance,
  2. matters relating to the SCF,
  3. the Green Climate Fund (GCF),
  4. the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and
  5. the identification of the information to be provided by Parties in accordance with Article 9, paragraph 5, of the Paris Agreement.

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Global Pact for the Environment: Defragging international law?

Published on August 29, 2018        Author: 

A ‘defrag’ computer program that consolidates fragmented files on a hard drive holds metaphorical attraction for international lawyers. Our encounters with international law often seem to be specific to particular legal regimes, which have a functional orientation and professional sensibility that, in the words of the International Law Commission, may be self-contained. International environmental law and human rights, for example, were developed at different times and are supported by different international and domestic institutions. Now, the United Nations is considering a proposal that promises to integrate various parts of international law, thereby improving its performance: the Global Pact for the Environment.

The draft preliminary text for the Global Pact for the Environment entrenches a right to an ecologically sound environment (Article 1), sets out a duty of states and other actors to take care of the environment (Article 2) and requires parties to integrate the requirements of environmental protection into their planning and implementation, especially to fight against climate change, and to help protect the ocean and maintain biodiversity (Article 3). These and other clauses provide a framework that follows the existing international human rights covenants – on civil and political rights and on economic, social and cultural rights – to promote a ‘third generation’ of fundamental rights. On 10 May 2018, a resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly established an ad hoc open-ended working group to analyse possible gaps in international environmental law and, if deemed necessary, to consider the scope, parameters, and feasibility of an international instrument (which could include, but is not limited to, a legally binding agreement along the lines of the Global Pact). Two co-chairs were appointed the following month. An accompanying White Paper outlines the Pact’s antecedents, which include the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. In this short post, I consider three ways in which the Pact impacts upon the interaction between regimes and ‘defragments’ international law. Read the rest of this entry…

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The Security Council and Climate Change – Too Hot to Handle?

Published on April 26, 2018        Author: 

Introduction

The Security Council, the only body of the United Nations that can adopt binding coercive measures, has so far been reluctant to train its sight at climate change. As the consequences of climate change become ever more severe, an important question is therefore whether the Security Council will address the security implications of climate change.

Article 24 of the UN Charter gives the Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. The Council’s classic domain has been interstate armed conflict. Starting in the early 90s, the Council began to show a greater willingness to prescribe measures also in internal situations of humanitarian emergency, thereby articulating a new approach to what constitutes a threat to international peace and security (clearly described in Presidential Statement S/23500, 31 January 1992).

The purpose of this post is to examine whether we can expect a similar evolution when it comes to climate change. In doing so, we must distinguish between three different ways in which the Council can address climate change.

First, the Council can address climate change as part of its general response to conflict situations. Ongoing hostilities in Libya, South Sudan, Yemen and Syria were all catalyzed by extraordinary droughts, storms and extreme flooding, which caused economic and political turmoil and instability. Yet, all these conflicts are recurring items on the Security Council’s agenda. Seen this way, the Council has already shown its aptitude to deal with the immediate security implications of climate change as part of its conflict management agenda.

Second, the Council can proscribe targeted measures to prevent climate change as an independent driver of conflict. This is arguably very different than merely tackling the violent effects of climate change without addressing climate directly. Third, the Council can address security implications of climate change occurring outside of conflict. This is an especially acute problem for most of the so-called Small Island Developing States (SIDS), whose very existence are threatened by sea-level rise, hurricanes and dwindling natural resources. Their remote geographical location and small populations suggest that the situation in those states could gradually deteriorate without causing much conflict or international instability.

The focus of the remainder of the post will be on the Council’s ability to address climate change directly, both as an independent driver of or unrelated to conflict. Read the rest of this entry…

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Reflections on the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Agreement

Published on June 5, 2017        Author: 

Ending months of fevered speculation, President Donald Trump fulfilled his campaign promise and announced US withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Agreement last week. He did so because in his opinion the Paris Agreement inflicts ‘severe energy restrictions’ on the United States and ‘punishes’ the United States ‘while imposing no meaningful obligations on the world’s leading polluters.’ This post seeks to examine the merits of the US’ stated rationale for withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, and then offers some reflections on next steps for the US in the international climate change regime.

How Valid are Trump’s Criticisms?

President Trump’s remarks reveal a fundamentally flawed understanding of the Paris Agreement. First, his remarks suggest that the Paris Agreement is a prescriptive instrument that ‘inflicts’ restrictions and ‘imposes’ obligations on states. This is not the case. Read the rest of this entry…

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A Proposal for a Multilateral Border Carbon Adjustment Scheme that is Consistent with International Trade Law if the Trump Administration withdraws from the Paris Agreement

Published on May 22, 2017        Author: 

On the campaign trail, President Trump repeatedly promised to “cancel the Paris Climate Agreement and stop all payments of US tax dollars to UN global warming programs”. He had previously called global warming a “hoax” and a “con” numerous times, and “a concept created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.” Although Trump quietly dropped his pledge to cancel the Paris Agreement from his 100-day “Contract with the American voter”, and has since said that he “has an open mind” on the Paris Agreement, there remains at present a fierce debate within his administration on whether to withdraw, with no final decision expected before the end of the G-7 summit on May 26 and 27.

The essential thesis of this blog post, which summarizes a longer paper available on SSRN, is that international trade law will permit border carbon adjustments (BCAs) on products from the US, if the Trump Administration withdraws from the Paris Agreement, so long as these schemes are well-designed to avoid the World Trade Organization (WTO) prohibitions on arbitrary or unjustified discrimination and on disguised protectionism, as interpreted by the WTO’s Appellate Body in its US–Shrimp report and US–Shrimp 21.5 decision. This post proposes a multilateral border carbon adjustment scheme (MBCA) that other countries could agree to impose on the US should it withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

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The US and the Paris Agreement: In or Out and at What Cost?

Published on May 10, 2017        Author: 

Ever since President Donald Trump won the US elections, climate pundits have been playing the ‘will they, won’t they’ game in relation to US withdrawal from the hard-won and widely accepted 2015 Paris Agreement. The political need of the hour, it appears, is to keep the US in, and while that is certainly a desirable goal, it is time to ask, ‘at what cost’?

The US decision on whether it will withdraw from the Paris Agreement is imminent, but in advance of this decision President Trump has begun the process of dismantling Obama-era domestic regulations designed to address US greenhouse gas emissions. In the circumstances, even if the US decides to remain in the Paris Agreement, it would need to either lower the ambition of its nationally determined contribution (NDC), or be ready to fall short of it. This is at the heart of the current controversy animating the climate world – can a state downgrade its NDC under the terms of the Paris Agreement? American legal advisors in an understandable bid to keep the US in the Paris Agreement, are arguing that it can. I would like to argue that a different interpretation, one more in keeping with the object, purpose and spirit of the Paris Agreement, is possible, and even desirable.

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